Ernest Hemingway: In Limbo between Sexism and Feminism

10/27/09 side note:

Hi there, lit scholars! This appears to be one of my site's most popular pages. I'm glad for you to be reading my site. I'm especially proud for people to read about my Hemingway essays, as I had the pleasure of writing several over the course of my college career. Please send me some feedback at I'd be curious to know if anyone is citing me as a source.

1/13/10 side note:

Looks like I was right to suspect people have used my research for their own papers. Evidently a high school English teacher caught a student plagiarizing this essay. Tsk tsk. No shame in using sources, but be sure to cite them, kids!

Ernest Hemingway: In Limbo between Sexism and Feminism

For decades, Ernest Hemingway and his writings were looked upon by scholars as valuable statements of the modern condition that unfortunately also displayed sexist leanings. For all their praise of his focus on depicting authentic stories of World War I and post-World War I disillusionment in his characteristic short declarative sentences that so concisely portray the violence dominating the twentieth century, scholars also lamented his stories’ praise of masculinity at the expense of women and femininity. His male-oriented stories about hunting, fishing, bullfighting, and battle scenes alienated many a female reader. Indeed, the author of this essay felt convinced before beginning the assignment of Hemingway’s certain misogyny.

Nevertheless, some quality about Hemingway’s oeuvre must have kept literary scholars coming back for more, because academia still reveres Hemingway as a master stylist and spokesman for the Lost Generation. As Margaret D. Bauer writes, “I teach [Hemingway’s stories] in spite of Hemingway’s reputation as a misogynist and my own feminist sensibilities,” explaining that she presents them to her students “not only because I recognize Hemingway’s genius with the craft of the short story, but also to show students that they should not make assumptions about a writer’s work based on some vague impression they have of the author’s character” (125). According to Richard Fantina, other critics have even attempted to reclaim Hemingway “as almost a feminist” (85). That the same author could be regarded by some as a villainous sexist and by others a champion of gender equality makes Hemingway an interesting subject of study from a GWS perspective.

This essay will attempt to perform the same kind of levelheaded criticism that Bauer lauds, evaluating Hemingway’s work itself instead of his media image as a gruff, chauvinist man’s man in order to determine whether or not Hemingway is in fact a sexist. I will weigh arguments for both sides, ultimately to dispel notions of him as a pure sexist but also to raise enough concerns to disqualify him from the ranks of feminism. An eccentric author of bold statements and creator of controversy, Hemingway straddles both worlds without fitting into either, finally landing himself a place in the troublesome limbo between sexism and feminism.

The traditional feminist view of Hemingway as hateful toward women deserves exploration first. Take, for example, his story “Soldier’s Home,” a very early short story of Hemingway’s originally published in his first ever American book: In Our Time (1925), a collection of short stories loosely based around World War I and postwar experiences. Krebs is a young man recently returned from war who finds himself unable to function properly in everyday American society, where he feels his male peers are misunderstood by the older and younger generations. A large portion of this story is spent on him watching and contemplating young women his age, with whom he felt unable to communicate since “they lived in such a complicated world of already defined alliances and shifting feuds that Krebs did not feel the energy to break into it” (112). Here Krebs seems to associate women with frivolous gossiping – a stereotype feminists can easily point out as sexist. To him, the ideal postwar life means simplicity, free of the “intrigue and the politics” that attempting to date women requires (113). He prefers the girls he met in France and Germany because “There was not all this talking. You couldn’t take much and you did not need to talk,” explaining earlier that “When you were really ripe for a girl you always got one. You did not have to think about it” (113). While one can sympathize with the trauma Krebs experienced on the European battlefield, a GWS scholar cannot much appreciate his view of women as commodities to be “gotten” on a whim. He seems to view women as little more than meat; no need to talk or find out if he shares interests with them before engaging in intercourse – finding them and locating a bed ought to be enough.

Krebs also employs the male gaze, as explained by Laura Mulvey in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. He focuses in on them almost as if they were objects, presumably while reading on his front porch. The narrator asserts that Krebs “liked to look at them” while noting the pattern created by their short hair, their sweaters, and their Dutch collars. Their patterns of behavior and of dress seem exotic and inaccessible to him, preferring the alleged simplicity of the French and German prostitutes to these Americans.

The theme of misogyny continues in the story “Cat in the Rain,” also from In Our Time, in which two married American tourists visiting an Italian hotel interact in ways that make the woman seem petty. When she spots a cat outside hiding under a table from the pouring rain, she tries to find it outside, cannot, then returns inside and whines to her husband. She lists a series of requests in an annoying tirade: she wants long hair so she can pull it “back tight and smooth and make a big knot at the back that I can feel” and to “have a kitty to sit on my lap and purr when I stroke her” (131). A moment later demands fancy silver, candles, spring weather, and new clothes. She seems to be the epitome of the petty, materialistic woman. Even their names indicate an authorial preference for the husband over the wife, since the narrator individualizes the man by referring to him as “George,” but creates in the woman a stock character by calling her “the American wife” and “the American girl” (130). Her title is even more troubling when one considers the fact that being just “the American wife” sets her as the standard, equating all women to her and her trivial demands.

Hemingway even evidently made disparaging comments about a fellow modernist write for being too feminine. He “apparently considered Dos Passos ‘womanish’ for his ‘refusal to take an assertively masculine role, especially with women’” (Eaton 511). This not only degrades women by insinuating that they are all essentially the same, but it also limits the possibilities of men; his statement sets a limit on what behavior men can have. With these egregious offenses against women established, one must wonder how anyone could label Hemingway a feminist. It seems, however, that in later years and more distance from the First World War, Hemingway mellowed out and actually assumed a more liberal stance toward women.

Bauer uses Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants” (1927) as an example of a case where he exalts the strength of a pregnant woman and looks down upon her naïve lover, who believes that abortion is an easy solution that can return their lives back to normal (130). Bauer writes that “Roger Whitlow calls [the story] ‘Hemingway’s most penetrating attack on men as the exploiter of woman,” and that “Linda W. Wagner points out that . . . ‘Hemingway’s sympathy is clearly with the girl’” (129). Whether or not she ultimately gets an abortion remains a mystery, and is not the point of the story. The point is that the pregnant woman in the story reaches a higher level of complexity than the man and recognizes that aborting her child will be a devastating event after which her relationship to him will never return to the status quo.

In his essay about Hemingway’s interest in Africa and casting off his identity as a white male author to become a genuine member of the Wakamba tribe, Suzanne del Gizzo points out that the popular media’s coverage of his safari differs from his actual experience. Look magazine interviewed Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary, just before he wrote True at First Light (written in 1953; released in 1999), and painted the couple as maintaining traditional American domestic life in Africa. Photographs only show her holding a gun once, even though she regularly hunted with Ernest, and focused more on caring for an abandoned gazelle (512). Del Grizzo claims the purpose of the photographs were to “confirm Mary’s innate femininity” which people at home had brought into question. Yet they depicted the Hemingways incorrectly, because True at First Light shows that “Hemingway and Mary share a more equal relationship with each other and with the natives than was suggested by the article” (513). That Hemingway would view his wife, the Africans, and himself as equals brings into question the traditional notions of Hemingway as the author benefiting from sexism and imperialism.

Contrary to the Look article, Hemingway’s relationship with his wife far transcended the bounds of tradition. In fact, an exchange recorded in Mary’s safari diary documents Hemingway’s openness to sodomy and sexual role reversal:

Reporter: Mr. Hemingway, is it true that your wife is a lesbian?

Papa: Of course not. Mrs. Hemingway is a boy.

Reporter: What are your favorite sports, sir?

Papa: Shooting, fishing, reading and sodomy.

Reporter: Does Mrs. Hemingway participate in these sports?

Papa: She participates in all of them.

(del Gizzo 517)

This playful conversation from Hemingway indicates that, in the privacy of the East African wilderness, he and his wife had no qualms about engaging in his homosexual fantasies of having sex with a man. He explicitly admits to sodomy and to regarding his wife’s act of assuming the male role in sex as attractive to him.

Richard Pantina confirms Hemingway’s interest in female-to-male sodomy and female-dominant sexuality in general by using his novels The Sun Also Rises and The Garden of Eden as examples of male submission – even masochism – toward women. He writes that “David Bourne in The Garden of Eden allows himself to be sodomized and called ‘girl’ by his wife” (96), and that Brett Ashley bosses the Jake Barnes around in The Sun Also Rises, acting as the dominant partner in a relationship with a man whose wound lost him his penis (93).

Hemingway’s sympathy for the wife in “Hills like White Elephants,” his openness to experimentation with female sexual domination, and his perception of his wife an equal on his safari score him points for the feminist side. Perhaps he regarded women lowly only in his angst-driven youth, particularly in the stories published in In Our Time, after which he gained a more GWS-friendly perspective.

It seems more likely, however, that Hemingway’s work adds up to make a point about his vision of ideal womanhood. The women as shown in “Soldier’s Home” and “Cat in the Rain” exhibit attributes he dislikes: frivolous, gossipy, whiny, excessively materialistic, conforming to the same pattern. He appreciates women such as Mary, Brett Ashley, and David Bourne’s wife, who can prove their so-called “manly” qualities to him in the bedroom by having female-to-male anal sex and in African expeditions by hunting with the rest of the men. He cannot respect women unless he feels that they can match his masculinity. While it may be a positive feminist point that he does not demand that women submit to him, his views of women seem too binary. Either they act too stereotypically girlish, or they take on hypermasculine traits. Hemingway blinds himself to the middle ground. In the process, he oversimplifies the complexity of the situation and sets an ideal mold – a test – that few women can live up to.

I would argue with Bauer and del Gizzo that Hemingway’s misogyny is far overexaggerated and that he is much more open-minded than past feminists gave him credit for, but I also believe that Hemingway’s test of every woman’s strength and virtue to determine whether or not he should respect them is unfair. Thus he enters the gray area between feminism and sexism; he still deserves criticism from GWS scholars but should not be demonized outright.


Bauer, Margaret D. “Forget the Legend and Read the Work: Teaching Two Stories by Ernest Hemingway.” College Literature 30.3 (2003): 124-137.

del Gizzo, Suzanne. “Going Home: Hemingway, Primitivism, and Identity.” Modern Fiction Studies 49.3 (2003): 496-523.

Eaton, Mark Rev. of Dos Passos and the Ideology of the Feminine, by Janet Galligani Casey. Modern Fiction Studies 45.2 (1999): 510-513.

Fantina, Richard. “Hemingway’s Masochism, Sodomy, and the Dominant Woman.” The Hemingway Review 23.1 (2003): 84-105.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. First Scribner trade pb. ed. New York: Scribner, 2003.